Grab them with that opening sentence! Astound them with that first page! Don’t let them get away!
New writers hear this advice constantly. It’s a vulture perched on our computer screen, daring us to fail. It sucks up endless hours while we write and rewrite to snatch a reader’s attention.
But how important is it, really?
As with everything, the answer is “it depends.”
As a starting writer, the need to grab a reader earlier is greater than that of an established author. I don’t have to be swept away on the first page by Neil Gaiman or Stephen King, because I know that they will captivate me before long. “But who is this Michael A. Ventrella fellow?” people will ask. If I don’t hook them early on, they won’t continue.
Writing skill in and of itself is not enough. As an editor, I have seen stories that were very well written but nothing happened until page ten. There was character development and background information provided that could have waited until later, when I cared about the character’s situation and it mattered.
So yes. Grab them early. And let us know what we’re in for.
The opening page should ideally establish who the main character is and a setting — Knowing when and where a story takes place helps us get into the story easier. Most importantly, it should contain a question that makes the reader want to turn the page.
As an editor, I am always looking for that grab in the stories I buy. Here, check this opening paragraph from a story by Mike Strauss from the second Fortannis collection, A BARD IN THE HAND:
The heavy wooden door of the only permanent structure in the outskirt town of Padrin’s Hold burst inward without warning and a powerfully built woman dressed in fur skinned from a rare howl bear collapsed onto the hard wooden floor. The frequency with which this occurred was so high that the blood running freely from a large gash in the woman’s leg spilled onto a stain made by many similar injuries across the years. The single resident of the building, a middle-aged elf woman named Endrith, was not only unsurprised, but actually made a few more notations in the thick ledger she was writing in before looking at her guest.
Makes you want to read more, doesn’t it?
Here’s the first page of Mark Mensch’s story “A Matter of Death and Life” from the upcoming Fortannis collection A BARD DAY’S KNIGHT:
“I thought zombies only came out at night,” Nigel said to the milling mass of corpses.
Every story he heard about the undead had always been that they come out of graves at night and roam the darkness looking for the living to feed upon; or at least wait until there was a thick fog to hide within. So he was quite unprepared, when walking through the woods one afternoon, to run into a group of three of the lumbering creatures.
Once the initial shock of seeing them wore off, he figured he wouldn’t have any difficulty with them. After all, they were “lumbering.” What turned out to be difficult for him though was the forest. He was quite adept at moving through a city. Throw drunks, cut purses, fenced off areas and dead-end alleys at him and he could navigate it like a sailor with a magical sextant. But apparently trees, roots, loose dirt and other woodland debris was not the same thing. He found himself stumbling as he ran, cursing at the brambles snagging his clothes and quickly losing his sense of direction.
In addition, the dead had brought friends. Before he knew it, over a dozen of the rotting corpses had him surrounded and his only choice was to climb up a very large tree. Luckily, hand-eye coordination and balance are not in a zombie’s repertoire. Nigel was treed, but safe.
That was three days ago.
Here, one more, by Bernie Mojzes, also from the upcoming A BARD DAY’S NIGHT:
Normally, finding a dead cat is a bad thing, especially when it’s nailed to your front door. But there are worse things.
Being poor, unemployable, and shunned by society, for one.
Being suddenly but discretely wealthy, but still unemployable and shunned by society, for another.
If you’re reading this now, then you probably already know some of my earlier adventures: you’ve either read my own (true, and almost unbiased) accounts, or were at least subjected to the lurid revisionism of the local bards and broadsheets. If you can’t be bothered to do basic research, well, don’t look to me fill you in. I’ve done my part. Suffice to say, my last job earned me enough money that I never needed to work again. Which I suppose is good, if dull, because it’s not like clients were lining up at my door.
Except for the cat. And that didn’t really count as “lining up.” More like just hanging around.
Which is exactly what my own life consisted of at that point. Hanging around and waiting for something to happen to break through the daily monotony of dining (alone) in Ashbury’s finest restaurants and then drinking myself stupid until it was late enough to go to sleep.
Can there be anything worse than boredom?
I examined the cat. It wasn’t terribly large, but showed no signs of being feral; its coat was glossy and well-groomed, a calico, and it wore a worked leather collar with a bell. A large spike had been driven through its chest and into my oak door. Blood stained and matted the fur beneath the wound, and discolored the wood below.
Very curious, and I decided I’d begin my investigation immediately upon recovering from my hangover the following afternoon. In the meantime, it wouldn’t do to have a cat hanging from my door. What would my neighbors say? They already hated and feared me. I would, I decided, put it in a canvas sack and store it in the basement until the morning. I reached for the cat.
And learned exactly what is worse than boredom.
As I carefully tugged the dead cat off the nail, it hissed and spat, and raked a sharp claw across my cheek. I dropped it and jumped back, gracefully catching my heel on a cobblestone, and sprawled on my back.
The last I saw of the dead cat, it was racing into an alley.
There was no way I’d be able to catch it, so I went inside, poured myself a glass of wine, and collapsed on the bed. And I don’t remember much else.
Your goal is to establish a setting and make us want to continue reading. Give us a question that can only be answered by turning the page and continuing on.
And, once more, the final caveat that is always given: There are no rules. It is possible to ignore this advice completely and still have a great opening. If it works, it works.